The Kiwis at home will be tough to conquer

S. DINAKAR

IT was 35 years ago in New Zealand that India made its significant breakthrough in world cricket, when the quick-thinking Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi led the nation to a resounding 3-1 victory over the Kiwis. India had scored its first away series Test triumph. That was way back in 1967-68.

For Sourav Ganguly's men, who arrived in New Zealand last week, a two-Test and a seven-ODI series is ahead of them. It will be a huge challenge, for the Kiwis, or the Black Caps, are a tough side to conquer at home.

It has been 16 long years since India has won a Test series outside the sub-continent, in England, '86. The two away campaigns this year have yielded mixed results; while the Indians eventually went down to the West Indies after grabbing a 1-0 lead in Port of Spain, they displayed better resolve in the Old Blighty, rallying to level the series 1-1 at Leeds.

Traditionally, the Indians have been sluggish starters on tours, often conceding crucial early ground before gaining in confidence. Last time around too in New Zealand (1999), swing bowler Simon Doull sliced though the Indian first innings with a seven-wicket haul in Wellington. The Indians eventually lost the decisive Test of the series by four wickets.

With the dark clouds - the dispute over player payments - that hovered over the New Zealand cricket scene clearing, after the cricketers and the Board reached an understanding, the decks were cleared for a strong Kiwi side to take on the Indians. It promises to be an interesting series.

Bowlers win Test matches and the attack does hold the key. India would be expecting incisive left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan to fire on all cylinders. He has easily been the pick of the Indian pacemen, striking both with the old and new ball, and it remains to be seen how his overworked knee that forced him to miss the ODI series against the West Indies, has recovered.

In fact, much of India's chances in the Test series rest on Zaheer's fire and the kind of support he receives from the 'now incisive, now erratic' Nehra, and the enigmatic Ajit Agarkar. The absence of old soldier Javagal Srinath, so strangely 'rested' for the Test series, after a committed performance against the Caribbeans in the Tests at home, is bound to be felt. Tinu Yohannan receives another opportunity but can he prove a viable option?

This is not to suggest that the spinners will be marginalised on the tour. The pitches in New Zealand have assisted spin in the past and with senior leggie Anil Kumble opting out, ace off-spinner Harbhajan Singh takes on the mantle as the spin spearhead.

Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, impressive for most part against the Windies in the ODIs, would be anxious to make a mark in the Tests as well, and he does have the right ingredients to succeed in the longer version of the game - flight, drift, turn, a persistent line, and an effective armer.

While Wellington, the venue for the first Test (from December 12 to 16), with its windy conditions, has favoured the pacemen in the past, the spinners have bowled plenty of overs on the surface at Hamilton, where the second Test will be staged (Dec. 19 to 23). However, the wickets can behave differently, sending the predictions out of the window.

And let's not forget that it was the great Indian off-spinner of yore, Erapalli Prasanna, who bagged 24 wickets when the visiting Indians so sensationally upstaged the Kiwis 3-1 in 67-68. It was Prasanna again, who bowled India to victory in the Auckland Test of '76.

Between them, Srinath and Kumble have consumed close to 600 Test batsmen, and this is a void that cannot be filled easily. The burden of expectations on Zaheer and Harbhajan is bound to be that much more, with India seeking that elusive away Test series triumph.

The bowlers should find no dearth of support from 'keeper Parthiv Patel. He has been a major gain for India this season, displaying the correct technique with the gloves and the right temperament holding the willow. The presence of Ajay Ratra, the second 'keeper, should keep the little man from Gujarat on his toes - in other words bring the best out of him.

However, it is vital that the bowlers, especially the pacemen, receive adequate support; in the past, the 'cordon' has let the Indian seamers down during crunch times.

The Indian batting appears to be in safe hands. However, would the team management stick to the opening combination of Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar, or will the little Shiv Sundar Das, neglected by the think-tank after the West Indian tour, receive a look-in? To be fair to Bangar, he has put a price on his wicket, while Sehwag will always remain a batsman who will either have 'terrific days' or 'forgettable ones'. The Kiwi pacemen could test the Delhi batsman with short-pitched stuff.

At No. 3. Rahul Dravid has remained a source of great strength to the side, his technical purity and high levels of concentration and commitment standing him in good stead. The Karnataka batsman notched up four Test hundreds on the tours of the West Indies and England this year, three of them in succession in the Old Blighty, the last being a double hundred at the Oval.

New Zealand should bring back pleasant memories to Dravid. It was in the Hamilton Test here in 1998 that he came up with scores of 190 and 103 not out. The vice-captain should be looking forward to more runs, and it would take a brave man to bet against him succeeding again.

Tendulkar, after a brief break from international cricket to set right an injured hamstring, should go into the New Zealand campaign with his mind and body fresh. And this could be bad news for the Kiwi bowlers. On the last tour to New Zealand he made a wonderful second innings century in Wellington.

V. V. S. Laxman scored a welcome hundred in the West Indies, did not disappoint in England, and his recent form has been commendable. He is a rare talent and if he applies himself the Kiwi bowlers could be in for plenty of hard work. Skipper Ganguly, shrugging away lack of form, battled hard for his runs in the West Indies, found his timing and range in England, but was at the receiving end of some debatable decisions in the home series.

The Indian batsmen will be up against a Kiwi attack that will not be found wanting in heart. But, unfortunately for the Kiwis, star all-rounder Chris Cairns, a cricketer who can swing games in a hurry, has been ruled out of the first Test (Wellington, Dec. 12).

The inspirational cricketer has handled the Indian spinners particularly well in the past, using his feet and striking them effortlessly to the distant corners of the ground. But his rehabilitation after the knee operation that he had in March, is not complete and as Cairns himself said, "I'm feeling good, but I am just not ready to bowl in a Test match. I'll be taking it day by day and hopefully, I will be ready for the second Test (in Hamilton from Dec. 19)."

Another cricketer who could influence the series is Shane Bond. The Kiwi is genuinely quick and does get the new ball to move at a lively pace. He tends to reverse swing the old ball, can surprise the batsmen with well-directed yorkers, and hustle 'em with steeply lifting short balls. Bond was one of the heroes of New Zealand's first victory in the Caribbean this year and, if he is fit and firing, the Indian batsmen may have quite a task before them. The Kiwis also possess support pacemen like the big Darryl Tuffey and Ian Butler, who can inflict some damage.

The Kiwis have some more cricketers who can make a difference - Nathan Astle, skipper Stephen Fleming and Craig McMillan. Astle can dismiss both the pacemen and the spinners with power and timing and his exploits against England early this year are only too well known.

Fleming, an elegant southpaw, has been consistent in the Kiwi middle-order, while the free stroking and uninhibited Craig McMillan is just the kind of player who can take the game away from the opposition. Matthew Richardson has been solid at the top of the order, while Lou Vincent, a shot-maker by instinct, would be looking to cement his place. The Kiwi pitches are not really on the quicker side and Daniel Vettori, a quality left-arm spinner and a more than useful bat, will strive to make the Indian batsmen earn their runs.

The Kiwis also draw their strength from a number of useful, efficient cricketers, who can tilt the scales in tight situations. Scott Styris, who had an outstanding tour of the Caribbean, is a combative batsman and a tidy seamer, while Chris Harris, a busy left-hander and a handy 'leg-spin or seam-up bowler has plenty of experience in international cricket, though not so much in Tests. And you can trust the New Zealanders to field well.

The series will also be a battle of wits between Ganguly and Fleming, both relatively young, positive skippers, who are more likely to go for victories. Both have the respect of their men - such an important quality - and have brought an element of stability to the top job.

With the World Cup just around the corner the one-day series will assume importance and the two sides are bound to try out a few innovations before the big event. The Kiwis possess both the industrious and the flair players and the seven-match ODI series is bound to witness some hot contests. In the ODIs, men like Andre Adams, a hard-hitting batsman and pace bowler, will come into focus. The Kiwis bat deep with utility players such as Harris and Adams keeping their side in the hunt during difficult times.

On the odd occasion though, the Kiwi batting has come apart as we witnessed in the ICC Champions game against Australia in Colombo where Fleming's men were hopelessly outplayed by the rampaging Ricky Ponting's team.

While there is no denying the strength of the Indian batting line-up, with its glittering array of stroke-makers and the side's ability to chase big totals, the bowling has been a huge problem area. It is vital that the Indians get the attack right before the big-event. Zaheer should obviously strengthen the attack. However, would Srinath receive a look-in for the ODI series?

Then there is the question of the 'all-rounders', so crucial in any ODI outfit. Though Sanjay Bangar kept his cool and struck the ball well in the nerve-wracking stages of the Ahmedabad ODI against the West Indies, his lack of pace with the ball leaves him vulnerable, especially when the batsmen get after him. There aren't too many viable alternatives though.

Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh have been brilliant. However, the Indian fielding has tended to wilt under pressure and the side can ill-afford such lapses in the World Cup. The limited overs series in New Zealand will be a wonderful opportunity for the Indians to iron out the chinks. The team management has its job cut out and coach John Wright has to get it right.